Tue, Jul 01, 2003 - Page 9 News List

World Trade Center architect speaks out

His controversial design for the rebuilding of the World Trade Center site has been slated as `a wailing wall' and a terrorist target. But winning over his critics is the least of his worries. Architect Daniel Libeskind says the hole is greater than the sum of its parts

By Dominic Lutyens  /  THE OBSERVER , NEW YORK

ILLUSTRATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

Daniel Libeskind's New York office is remarkably modest considering it is from here that he's masterminding the world's most challenging architectural scheme -- the US$10 billion-plus reconstruction of the 16-acre (hectare) World Trade Center site, which is located only a five-minute walk away. His studio is a makeshift space equipped with around 15 village-fete-style trestle tables groaning with plans and models of Libeskind's most ambitious project to date.

But then Libeskind, who sailed into New York in 1959, a Jewish immigrant accompanied by his Holocaust-surviving parents, and who has since lived in London, Milan and Berlin, is clearly used to transience. A life of survival and adaptability has rendered the trappings of an elegant office a cosmetic irrelevance. Libeskind, who talks in rapid-fire, staccato sentences, mentions unapologetically at one point: "We're in temporary offices. We don't have wallpaper. Just a wonderful spirit."

Of his loyal team, which includes his diminutive but formidable Canadian wife Nina, he said: "People are here because they believe in what they're doing. It's not about how impressive your desk is or the accouterments on the walls."

With no reception, and an intimidating atmosphere of intense concentration and industry, this is no place to walk into as a stranger trammelled by British reserve. The only way for me to puncture this bubble is to propel myself into the space with a forthright introduction. We're in New York, after all, city of Teflon-coated self-belief and chutzpah -- qualities Libeskind possesses in spadefuls. He has stood by his consistently controversial projects with unwavering conviction.

The centerpiece of his Ground Zero scheme is the monumental Freedom Tower. Other elements include a Memorial Museum, a sunken Memorial Garden removed from street-level bustle and so conducive to contemplation, two cultural centers, retail outlets and a railway station that promises to be Lower Manhattan's answer to Grand Central Station, and which will provide a link from New York to JFK Airport.

Most contentious of all is Libeskind's desire to retain part of the 21m-deep, 168m-long bathtub-like structure (otherwise known as the "slurry wall") in the bowels of the site that prevents water seeping in from the Hudson River -- symbolically, an emblem of resistance to terrorism and a powerful reminder of Sept. 11.

The competition for the scheme was speedily conducted in two stages. Last December, seven architectural practices submitted nine schemes in round one. By February, these had been whittled down to two -- Libeskind's and a design by Think, a practice headed up by Rafael Vinoly, which envisioned two translucent, ethereal towers made from scaffolding filled with cultural spaces. Libeskind's scheme was given the green light on Feb. 27. This despite the acid-bath vitriol heaped on it.

Rival architect Vinoly described Libeskind's design as "the Wailing Wall." In a tit-for-tat spat, Libeskind dubbed his opponent's scheme "two skeletons in the sky," and deemed its name, World Cultural Center, a sinister throwback to Stalin's "palaces of culture."

New York Times architecture critic, Herbert Muschamp, has called its retention of the slurry wall "astonishingly tasteless, emotionally manipulative and close to nostalgia and kitsch."

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